A bundled-up sea of onlookers swarmed behind the Claus family's sleigh Friday as the tail end of Ashland's 20th annual Festival of Light parade eased into the Plaza for the countdown to Southern Oregon's most grandiose holiday light display.
"Ho ho ho!" Santa bellowed over the jubilant crowd standing below his perch on the balcony of Alex's Plaza Restaurant and Bar, where he stood waving, flanked by Mrs. Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
About 10,000 merrymakers packed into Ashland's downtown area for the well-known celebration, said Katharine Flanagan, marketing director for the Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the parade.
Santa put the finishing touches on Black Friday with a countdown to the Grand Illumination, simultaneously flicking on more than 1 million individual white lights strung over downtown's buildings.
"It's a family tradition for us," said Jaime Hartt, walking back through the downtown dazzle with 5-year-old Nolan Hartt grasping her right hand and Sophia Hartt, 8, in her left.
"It was great as usual," she said, her breath visible in the 40 degree chill.
Nolan and Sophia have seen the parade plenty of times in the past, they said, but its always worth watching.
"I always come to see the parade too," said 11-year-old Joseph Wallner-Sentle. "When they light it up, it looks really cool "… it's how we celebrate the holidays.
Downtown businesses were bustling with shoppers from the morning on, said Flanagan.
Just before the parade, customers were packed into Lithia Park Shoes, Music Coop, Paddington Station and Bloomsbury Books.
"We provide our own little version of Black Friday here in Ashland," said Flanagan. "And the parade was magical, the little kids were creating memories."
As 10-foot-tall King Winter and the rest of the Ashland Community Hospital float kicked off the parade in front of the public library at about 5 p.m., kids sitting farther down the route were stretching out in the street for an early glimpse of the caravan.
"This is one of the key community events in Ashland, and I am proud to be a part of it," said Rylan Heyerman, towering above the crowd on King Winter's stilts. Paul and Miranda Hennan make the trip from Corvallis to see the parade each year, said Paul Hennan 34.
Their daughter Abby 2, has seen it twice, and Friday was 5-year-old Benjamin's fourth Festival of Light, the family said.
"The kids have been looking forward to it all day; we plan our day around it," said Miranda Hennan 32.
The Hennans both graduated from Ashland High School in the late 1990s, and come back to town during the holidays to spend time with family, they said.
Friday was Laura Vaille's first Festival of Light in Ashland.
Vaille, 27, and her husband Nick Vaille, 28, both of Grants Pass, spent Thanksgiving at Callahan's Mountain Lodge near Siskiyou Pass, and decided to come off the mountain for the celebration..
A great way to end a day of light shopping, the couple said.
Susan Springer, who lives beside the public library in Ashland, watched the parade from her porch with family members and then followed Santa and company to the plaza for the Grand illumination.
"I just love the small town feeling of this one "… it seems more local than some of the others," she said, having watched most of Ashland parades over the past 20 years from the porch.
"It puts everyone in the holiday spirit."
Sam Wheeler is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-499-1470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.